Real Talk: Parasites While Traveling Abroad

Giardia. Yuk.
Giardia. Yuk.

giardiaMontezuma’s Revenge or Delhi Belly, whatever the slang terminology for tummy issues while traveling abroad, they’re less than joyful.

I’ve dedicated my life to sojourning and had managed cases of parasites from my jaunts in Brasil, Venezuela, and India.  After all, it is simply impossible to avoid the water, ice, and foods that carry their own unique bacteria.  Each time I feel my belly beginning to sputter, I remind myself that the trip is always worth the inconvenience of new bacteria entering my system and the physical discomfort that they bring, especially because some high powered drugs always seemed to solve the problem. That was, until Ecuador.

Ecuador kicked my ass, literally.

Here we are at La Ronda in Quito.  This is Tony's first trip to South America and his first time in a Spanish speaking country.
Pre-parasites – smiling as we walked through La Ronda in Quito, Ecuador – our first stop before heading to Cuenca.

My husband and I lived in Cuenca, Ecuador for two months . Our goal was to stay in one city and learn one place, albeit recognizing that two months wasn’t nearly enough time to truly know ANY place in this world.  We rented an apartment and immersed as much as possible, appreciating every moment of our time abroad.

That was until giardia entered my life somewhere around week five.

According to the CDC, giardia is:

“a microscopic parasite that causes the diarrheal illness known as giardiasis. Giardia (also known as Giardia intestinalis, Giardia lamblia, or Giardia duodenalis) is found on surfaces or in soil, food, or water that has been contaminated with feces (poop) from infected humans or animals.”

(You read that right. The CDC uses the term poop. I was infected by poop.  Say it with me: EWWWWW!)

This is not a comfortable topic.

Let’s face it, we’re really talking about extensive bouts of diarrhea.  But this is Melibee, so we are going to give you the most authentic version of this miserable side of my time abroad.  Prepare yourselves!

It is important that I share that every ounce of pain and discomfort that I experienced from giardia was worth my time in Ecuador. I would go there again in a heartbeat, but armed with more appropriate medication next time.

Giardia came, uninvited, into my body through a food or water source.  I don’t know when it happened, but the symptoms began just over half way during my stay in Cuenca.  It started with loose stool.  The abdominal pain was bearable, although I felt bloated much of the time.  I didn’t think much of it because I had experienced something similar while traveling in Central and South America before (as well as India) and with a quick visit to the doctor, it always seemed to clear up.

Because the health care system in Ecuador is so inexpensive and because the local emergency room was closest, I bypassed the Dr and headed straight for the ER.  Keep in mind, when you have “the runs” you are concerned about transportation – closer is better.  The ER doctor assumed it was a bacteria, so prescribed something without doing any testing and I was on my way.  That seemed to help for a week or so.

Post snorkeling in the beautiful waters near la Isla de la Plata
Post snorkeling in the beautiful waters near la Isla de la Plata.

My love and I took off for the coast for a five day beach get away.  We took a day trip to Isla de la Plata and enjoyed swimming, walks on the beaches in Ayampe, and time laughing (and eating!) with Ecuadorian friends who were also on holiday that week.  It was paradise, until the day we headed two hours back up the coast to catch our flight back to Cuenca.  I had shooting pain in my gut and was praying my stomach would hold up for the couple of hours ride to the airport. (It did.)

Despite being weak from dehydration, I pushed on and joined Fernando for lunch.  I had hoped the soup would give me strength, yet at times that week of his visit I was so weak that I had to hold onto my husband's shoulders just to be able to walk.
Despite being weak from dehydration, I pushed on and joined Fernando for lunch. I had hoped the soup would give me much needed strength, yet at times that week of his visit I was so weak that I had to hold onto my husband’s shoulders just to be able to walk around Cuenca – but I did it.

The pain and diarrhea were horrible within 24 hours.  I took more medicine from the local pharmacy and again, had some resolution to the latest bout.  My friend, Fernando, visited from the US and I was in relatively good shape as far at the runs to the bathroom, but I was quite weak from being dehydrated.  I stubbornly marched on – as my friend was in town and we were having a great time catching up and showing him our new city.  After he left, I attempted a natural treatment commonly used by indigenous people that a local had shared with me. It was some type of powder that I had to mix in water and drink – and it made you have intense diarrhea – presumably to clear the parasites out.  It definitely cleared me out, however those stingy parasites stuck around for more intestinal ping pong.

When that didn’t work, I went to a local doctor.  He sent me for a stool sample which cost a mere five US dollars to have analyzed.  The test came back with a strong case of giardia (two “plus” signs) and some variety of amoeba.  The doctor prescribed a medication and had me repeat the test several days later. The amoeba were gone, but the giardia only decreased to one + sign.  He offered another script, which I took, but I could not follow up with him again because we were heading to Quito for a few days prior to our return home.

Once again the medication helped. I was able to participate in a hike for five hours the day of our flight – and I’m so grateful that my body cooperated enough to allow this to happen.  It is incredible how travel can muster up every ounce of strength in your body, especially when you’re down to your final 72 hours in a country, dehydrated and preparing yourself for re-entry shock.

The flight home was uneventful. Within hours of landing, we drove into a rather large snowstorm in North Carolina and ended up having to stay in a hotel about two hours into our return because the snow was really coming down and there was no way we could safely make it up the mountains to the western part of the state where we had relocated upon our return from Cuenca.   I felt relatively well – eating an American style breakfast at one of my favorite places in Durham, and then we grabbed some snacks at Whole Foods for the unexpected stop in a hotel.

Within days of my return, I was back in the bathroom, a lot.  Giardia is a dirty little critter.  It likes to lay eggs and to hunker down in your organs when it is allowed to make a residence in your body long enough.   I was up and down all night, dashing to the bathroom like OJ Simpson racing through the airport in that Hertz commercial circa 1978.  For those of you have experienced parasites, it isn’t a lot of fun, especially when you’re half asleep.  When they really get going, you’ll also be gifted with witnessing blood in your stool.  I was at this stage and I was a wreck.

To top it off, we had just re-entered the US in the middle of winter, moved to a new city/home, and I had not identified a local doctor yet.  To make matters worse, I’m highly sensitive to chemicals so cannot take most medications without horrific side effects.

IMG_5931 (Large)
Thinking about some of the magical experiences in Ecuador, like this 5 hour hike we took prior to our departure (despite giardia – not sure how I even did it!) helped me to get through the months of pain and misery once I got home and those dang eggs started hatching!

I found two local doctors in an attempt to rid my poor guts of the giardia.  One had me repeat the parasite test.  This time, instead of a little plastic cup with a lid and a wooden spoon to collect a sample – Ecuador style – I was given a bag that was the same size as one would use when purchasing several items of clothing in a store – it was so over the top American grande!  It had 3 different types of collection tools and one had a liquid in it and had to be refrigerated.  I was suddenly missing the beauty and simplicity of Ecuador – grab the sample, bring it in, get a result in less than an hour.  After going through two days of samples required in this large bag, I sent it to the lab and waited nearly a week.  Ironically, it all came back negative for parasites.  (I quickly learned that parasites are often false negatives.)

The doctor gave me yet another script and within 24 hours of taking it, I could not deal with the side effects.  I then turned to doctor number two (no pun intended!), who treated patients naturally.  His little natural pills did not work, despite his best effort.

I was now nearly another month into this agony.  I could hardly leave the house.  I was up at least 6 – 8 times during the night to race to the bathroom.  I was bleeding, in pain, frustrated, exhausted, and perplexed as to why my husband – the man with the intestines of steel – was not affected at all by the parasites, despite eating everything from street food to ice cream while in Ecuador!

I’m not sure how I did it, but I managed to drive two hours to meet up with my Naturopath from my previous city in North Carolina.  I did this out of sheer desperation, as I knew from her incredible track record that she would figure it out.

She did, thankfully.

She explained, in more detail than I’d ever want to know, about how parasites like giardia get really comfortable in every little crack and crevice in our bodies that they can set up camp in.  If you don’t get rid of them immediately, they will hunker down in places like your liver, pockets in your intestines, and other places that will make you feel really shitty (ok, this time the pun was intended!).  They will lay eggs so that they always have friends  to plot your next potty run in their little intestinal camps. You have to keep bombarding them to get rid of them – even once you begin to feel better.  (This is why these quick 7 days pharma treatments were not working on me.)

paratosinThe doctor prescribed a natural treatment called Paratosin.  I was required to take it for a month and then she wanted to see me again.  She said at four weeks, I would begin to feel human again. That seemed like it would be an eternity, but I honestly began to feel more human after just 16 days or so. I was able to leave the house and not feel like I should be wearing a diaper!  (Granted, I didn’t go that far, but I seriously could have – it was that awful!)

In addition, she had me take Billiven for gall bladder support.  If I recall correctly, I also took Glutathione for liver support.

Within a month, as she promised, I felt like a new person.  I continued to take Paratosin for the better part of the year, to ensure that every time any eggs hatched or one of the ‘camps’ got active, I would catch it.

I spent nearly TEN months dealing with giardia.  You heard me correctly – almost TEN months.  The eggs and campsites they created were stubborn, but I’m pretty sure we finally got those little critters.  To this day, when I start to have any tummy rumblings, I go back on Paratosin (it is all natural and I have no side effects at all) as one can also catch parasites at home.  (I have a friend who went camping and caught giardia – also for a hellish few months – from washing in stream in New England.)

Parasites are a miserable experience for travelers.  They can suck the joy out of what should be a memorable, informative, reflective journey.  When you’re suffering through them, you end up doing a different form of reflection.  I ended up watching a lot more TV in my rented apartment than ever intended – in Spanish and in English, and reading a lot more than expected. I also learned a lot of Spanish related to my guts.  Perhaps my proudest moment in Ecuador was that I didn’t need a translator at the ER as I had perfected my giardia speak.  (How sad is that?!)

Delicious patacones and other memorable food that we ate at the coast.
Delicious patacones and other memorable food that we ate at the coast.

Would I go back and do it all again?  You bet I would!  No giardia can hold me back from the incredible experiences I had in Ecuador.  After all, who can pass on patacones on the beach?  It wouldn’t have been an immersion experience if I walked on eggshells the entire time I lived in Ecuador.  That simply isn’t my style!

What would I do differently this time.  I’d actually use the water purifier that I bothered to pack (and didn’t use once!) as well as carry bottles of Paratosin for daily consumption.  Despite it all, I’m ready for my next educational experience abroad – but this time I hope my learning is not in the parasite arena.  Been there, done that.

Note:  I recommend Paratosin and other products because they worked for me.  I get no payment or benefit from sharing these healing agents.  I did not find any information about it as a treatment in the countless blogs and travel journals I read on line while trying to solve the giardia while in Ecuador and once home in the USA.  I felt it was important to write this – as awkward as it is to share your diarrhea runs with the public – to help anyone else suffering from parasites!

missybwheadshotAbout the Author:  Missy is the founder of Melibee Global.  You can read more about her here – and don’t worry – giardia isn’t mentioned once in any other link!